If you’ve ever taken a bite of meat, chances are Gary Smith has had a direct impact on your life. The food safety guru, unexpected “meat head” and animal agriculture advocate has made contributions to the livestock industry worldwide – and he’s not done.

It all started in 1956. Smith was fresh off the farm in southwest Oklahoma and headed to The Golden State for some fun in the sun at California State University, Fresno (then Fresno State) and to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an agricultural education teacher. After pushing through his undergraduate studies, only one semester of student teaching stood between Smith and his one way ticket to carrying out his life plan of instilling knowledge and passion for agriculture in high school students.

“I ended up getting really discouraged because so many of the kids didn’t seem to care,” recalls Smith. By the time the semester was over, the welding class had taken just enough interest in the subject to learn how to weld several of Smith’s possessions to his chair and break his desire to ever become an agricultural education teacher.

With guidance and through connections, Smith was soon on his way to Washington State University (WSU) to begin graduate school with an interest in animal breeding and production. Yet again, there was another plan for him – this time it was a call from the department head inquiring about his interest in and knowledge of meat science.

Confused, Smith explained he had one class, but didn’t care much for it. The department head then explained the school’s meats professor had accepted a position at another school, and they were in a jam for someone to teach the upcoming semester’s courses.

“I said, ‘Oh my! I don’t know enough to do that!”

After some persuasion and encouragement, Smith put his nose to the books to start teaching four meat science courses to students who only had a little less knowledge on the subject than him.

“I taught that first year exactly one lecture ahead of the students,” laughs Smith. “I was supposed to talk 50 minutes, but I timed every single lecture to be 53 or 54 minutes so there couldn’t possibly be anyone who had a chance to ask me a question – because if they had, I couldn’t answer it!”

Unexpected loves

Unexpectedly, Smith fell in love with the subject, devoting much of his time and energy to learning everything he could about meat science for the next four years. He also became more involved, coaching the meats team and continuing his education by taking a meat inspector course from the vet school, running the school’s meat lab, working in packing plants and serving as a relief meat cutter at retail stores.

And then again, Smith fell in love – this time with the love of his life. Kay Camp, a Washington wheat farmer’s daughter, was attending WSU in 1962 when the two met. By the spring of 1965 the couple were married and had moved to College Station, Texas, so Smith could finish his doctorate degree at Texas A&M University. It was here when Smith’s research begin to greatly impact the meat industry as it is today.

“My PhD research was to work on a project that developed a system for assigning the first yield grades for lamb and updating quality grades,” says Smith. “The information was used by USDA to make revisions to the methods being used at the time.”

Later on in his career, Smith would be instrumental in the development of pork carcass quality grading and revising pork and beef yield grades.

“In the earlier part of my life, the majority of my work was dedicated to the development of more accurate carcass grades for USDA,” he says. “Beef, pork and lamb.”

Life for him and Kay was hectic, but happy, Smith fondly recalls, saying they had three children together in 1966, 1967 and 1968, before Smith finished his doctorate in 1968 and returned to his job at WSU.

During a cold and blustery winter day in Washington in 1969, he received a call from the animal science department head at A&M that once again changed their lives.

“He asked me if I would be willing to return to College Station to be part of the staff,” says Smith. “Before he could say anything else I just asked him what the temperature was in Texas at the time. He said it was about 70 degrees. I stopped him short and yelled, ‘I’ll take it!’”

While at A&M, Smith conducted research at Monfort of Colorado on studies pertaining to the impacts various production stages have on the finished product at Kenny Monfort’s lamb and beef feedlots and packing plants, says Smith.

“We also did a lot of work on packaging and shipping,” he says, explaining he and his doctoral students were tasked by USDA to develop technology that would allow fresh beef to be shipped on a 21-day journey to Japan.

“We discovered if beef could be refrigerated and vacuum packaged specially, it could survive the journey,” he says. Today, the same technology is still utilized and mimicked by other countries.

From his time at Texas A&M from 1969 to 1990, Smith gradually advanced from assistant professor to the head of animal science, remaining a close associate with Monfort throughout the years. While Smith loved his position at the university, an opportunity to return to teaching and research as the Monfort Endowed Chair in Meat Science at CSU in 1990 excited him enough to make the move to Fort Collins, Colo.

Smith wasted no time jumping back into research, working out safe and efficient food production systems with McDonald’s to significantly minimize E. coli O157:H7. The technology was so effective that USDA began to make it a requirement of all plants in 1996.

Life was good for Smith and his family – he was leading cutting edge meat science research and Kay, the Washington girl at heart, was escaping the heat and humidity of Texas with the move to Colorado. Then, at the age of 53, Kay was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 2005, Smith was working part time so he could spend more time with her and by 2009 he had retired from CSU to be her primary caretaker until she passed away in 2013.

With his children’s encouragement, Smith returned to Texas shortly after to be closer to family. But his work was far from over. His former schools called him back, asking him to rejoin their faculties. So in August of 2014, Smith started back at A&M and CSU, a quarter time each, as visiting professor and special assistant to the President. Currently CSU is building a state of the art addition to its animal science department that will house livestock and meat processing facilities, classrooms and a retail dairy and meat store. The new addition will be named The Gary and Kay Smith Global Food Innovation Center after the Smith’s contributions to the school and industry.

A lot has changed since Smith’s fateful decisions led him to finding his love and passion in the meat industry. And while having 515 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, 48 distinguished awards and an induction into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame under his belt is a lot to be proud of, it’s the people in his life he still credits the most.

“I’ve been so lucky,” concludes Smith. “I’ve had the best wife, family, associates and graduate students anyone could ever ask for while serving the industry that I love.”

From the October issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.